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An adventurer’s guide to the Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains

Stretching along the Tennessee–North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains and their eponymous national park enchant millions of visitors each year with their spectacular natural beauty. Expect dense forests and tumbling waterfalls, mist-shrouded peaks dressed in blue and purple, and careful encounters with black bears and bald eagles. Whether you’re a hiker, a biker or an avid trout fisherman, adventure awaits in the Tennessee Smokies.

Friday 15 December 2023 16:48 GMT
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Take in the Views From Clingmans Dome

For the park’s most impressive aerial view, hike or drive along the access road from Newfound Gap Loop to Clingmans Dome – the highest peak in the Smokies and all of Tennessee. From the summit, there’s a steep, half-mile trail to an observation tower that offers 360-degree panoramas of the surrounding mountains. On clear days, you can see for over 100 miles.

Venture Underground Into the Tuckaleechee Caverns

The Tuckaleechee Caverns sprawl beneath Townsend and are estimated to be between 20 and 30 million years old. Guided tours take you on a 1.25-mile excursion through the cave system where illuminated wonders include 24-foot stalagmites, the Big Room (so vast it rivals a football stadium for size), and the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern United States.

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Hike the Appalachian Trail to Charles Bunion

This section of the iconic Appalachian Trail has to be one of the most impressive for confident hikers. From the trailhead just off Newfound Gap Road, it takes you on an 8-mile out-and-back adventure along exposed cliffs and rugged ravines to the summit of Charles Bunion mountain. Along the way, check out breathtaking views of Sawteeth Ridge and the Oconaluftee watershed.

Experience Synchronous Firefly Magic

Visit in June to witness a very special natural phenomenon: the mating season of the synchronous firefly. For a few weeks only, the males flash in unison each evening in an attempt to attract a partner. To see whole sections of the forest pulsating with light is a truly wondrous spectacle, although you will need to enter a lottery for a chance to get tickets.

Look for Wildlife in Cades Cove Valley

The open ground of Cades Cove Valley offers the best opportunity for spotting wildlife. Visit in the hours around dawn and dusk and keep your eyes peeled for black bears, coyotes, racoons, elk and white-tailed deer. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is open to vehicles every day except Wednesday, when it becomes one of the best mountain biking and hiking routes in the park.

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Admire Autumn Foliage on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

In autumn, set out from Gatlinburg along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to experience the park in all its gold-and-crimson glory. The one-way route climbs up through the forest, stopping frequently for jaw-dropping aerial vistas. Keep an eye out for buildings left by 19th-century European settlers, too, and detour on foot along the 2.6-mile circular trail to Grotto Falls.

Explore the Park’s Trails on Horseback

Three stables in the Tennessee section of the park offer guided horse rides for those that want the visceral joy of experiencing the sights, scents and sounds of the Smokies up close and personal. Cades Cove Riding Stables also offers hayrides and carriage rides for those that aren’t confident about navigating creek crossings and steep inclines on horseback.

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